How Food Insecurity Affects Brain and Behavior in Mice

Researchers found that food insecurity at an early age has a long-lasting impact on the brain and behavior in mice. It corresponds to previous studies showing that lower food security is linked to various human health risks.

A new study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, mimicked human insecurity in mice by delivering food on an irregular schedule but enough to maintain a safe body weight.

The regimen began a week before puberty onset in mice, equivalent to late childhood in humans, and continued for 20 days through the equivalent of late teen ages in mice. Another group of mice received food whenever they wanted it.

The research found that food insecurity affected cognitive flexibility. For example, food-insecure mice were more flexible in uncertain situations than well-fed mice, while well-fed mice were more flexible in more stable settings.

In addition, food-insecure female mice tended to become overweight when given unrestricted food in adulthood, while male mice showed no effect on weight.

Researchers also found that changes in the brain's reward network that are caused by food insecurity.

"We found that the neurons in the dopamine system, which is critical for learning, decision- making and reward-related behaviors, like addiction, were significantly altered in both their inputs and their outputs," said Linda Wilbrecht, UC Berkeley professor of psychology and member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, in a press release.

Food insecurity impairs development

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity means that "access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by lack of money and other resources."

A study from the USDA shows that in 2021, 10.2 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 3.8 percent (5.1 million households) that had very low food security. The same year, 1 in 8 (12.5%) households with children were food insecure.

The negative effects of food insecurity on humans have been long established. Another study from the USDA demonstrates that lower food security is associated with higher probability hypertension, coronary heart disease (CHD), hepatitis, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease in working-age adults.

However, food insecurity is especially bad for children. For example, it is associated with iron deficiency (ID), which can cause delays in socioemotional, cognitive, motor, and neurophysiological development, as well as poorer academic performance.

Food insecurity in childhood is also linked with depression later in life and a wide range of adolescent mood, behavior, and substance abuse disorders.

In addition, some studies even associated food insecurity in childhood with future obesity, as children experienced more restrictive and pressuring maternal feeding styles, decreasing their ability to self-regulate eating behaviors.


University of California, Berkeley. Food insecurity has lasting impacts on the brains and behavior of mice.

Current Biology. Transient food insecurity during the juvenile-adolescent period affects adult weight, cognitive flexibility, and dopamine neurobiology.

USDA. Food Security and Nutrition Assistance.

USDA. Food Insecurity, Chronic Disease, and Health Among Working-Age Adults.

National Library of Medicine. Food insecurity and hunger: A review of the effects on children’s health and behaviour.

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